An article about my great-grandfather, John Tusing. Published in Bend of the River, September 2009. This is the unedited original.
John Tusing – Virginia to Ohio by Alan Borer
The hill people of Appalachia have not had good press. Popular culture portrays a stereotype of the hill folk as barefoot louts, illiterate, ignorant, shiftless, and lazy. The truth is that many mountain people are hard workers. Many thousands of Appalachian people migrated to the industrial North when the automobile industry and its relatively high wages were at their height in the 1910s and 1920s. Cities like Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, and Toledo teemed with migrants from Kentucky, Tennessee, and West Virginia. It was one of the great mass migrations in American history.
My great grandfather was one of these hillmen transplanted to the North, but unlike many others he found his niche in rural Ohio. John Tusing was a hillman indeed, but he managed to replicate much of his rural lifestyle in the flatlands of Seneca County. By emigrating at the midpoint of his life, John brought a self-sufficient, even primitive lifestyle from the hills of home to a world as intensely rural, but much more a part of the modern world. My great-grandfather never held a full time job in either South or North, yet worked hard. He could not read or write, but knew quite a bit. With all these contradictions, he has always fascinated me.
John Tusing was born in 1877, the last child in a large family. My grandmother could remember his mother (her grandmother), Sarah Runion Tusing, who died in 1937 at the ripe old age of 98. Sarah was a midwife, in addition to being the mother of 10 children herself. The family lived in the hills above of the Shenandoah River near a little village called Coote’s Store, Virginia.
The mountainous neighborhood in which the Tusings lived was called Brock’s Gap. Now succumbing to an influx of second-home builders, “The Gap” was home to a scanty population of mountain people (a neighbor was Thomas Lincoln, whose son Abraham went on to greater things). Too steep to allow more than a farm here and there, the Brock’s Gap people lived close to the land. Fruits and nuts were gathered, medicines were made out of leaves and roots, meat hunted and fished for, or home-butchered from their semi-wild livestock. Long walks to reach any settlement were coupled with primitive churches, log houses, homemade clothes, and home remedies. Liquor was made from homegrown corn and distilled by tax dodgers. John Tusing’s grandfather made “moonshine,” and allegedly sold to both side of the Civil War.
John Tusing grew up in that mountain fastness. He married in 1897 and he and Martha had eight children. Life was hard, but it was what the family expected. John had a large garden, and though shaded by the mountain, they were able to grown enough to keep themselves alive. He grew, among other things, tomatoes, snap beans, white sweet corn, Osage muskmelons and black popping corn. The whole family worked on growing strawberries, both in the garden and selling them around the neighborhood.
The family scrounged much of what they ate. Deer and wild turkeys, but also chestnuts and apples, blackberries, and huckleberries. They made their own soap with lye from ashes. They had land enough for small crops of wheat and corn and vegetables, which were canned, never store-bought. Apple butter made at all night cider boilings. Bean-stringing and corn husking, where neighbors would gather to husk and watch for a red ear; the finder could kiss the girl of his choice. Fruit dried for winter in a drying house, separate from the barn, with the color of drying apples, peaches, and cherries enlivening the gray woodwork.
The family lived in a log cabin built two generations back. But fire plagued the family, starting with that ancient log building. After it had burned, the family replaced it with a frame house. Around 1920, that house burned too. One of John’s sons was ordered to save something from the burning house, and he brought out a mousetrap. But two fires for a large family was just too much. The decision was made to move north to try their luck with cousins who lived in Green Springs, Ohio.
One of my grandmother’s most vivid memories was of the train that took them north to Ohio. Coming from Virginia, it was a bit of a shock seeing how flat northern Ohio was. Once settled in Ohio, John Tusing recreated the world he had known in Virginia, a mixed world of small farming (gardening, really), hunting, and gathering what he could find from the woods. In Virginia, he had worked in a sawmill and as a “tie-hacker,” making railroad ties. In Ohio he did carpentry work for his brother-in-law. But in neither place did he see the need to work “full time,” or worry about pensions or insurance. When work in the garden or food from hunting offered itself, he simply stopped “work” for pay and went to the garden or the woods instead.
In later years, John turned mostly to hunting, fishing, and rambling. He did some traveling with his youngest daughter, and enjoyed cards with men his age in Green Springs. As he had not worried about paychecks in his youth, neither did he worry much about retirement benefits or Social Security in retirement. A widower for nearly forty years, he finally died in 1965 in Clyde, Ohio.
I was a toddler when John Tusing died. The world has changed since his time, and his chosen way of life was fading fast even then. He knew that life was not fair, and that only a lucky few had extras. Satisfied with what he had, he made no special effort to acquire more. His story might have that as a moral, but I doubt he would have seen any lesson to be learned. He would rather have gone fishing instead.